1 February 2013, 21:00

Minority languages worth saving as ‘bilingual brains are healthier in terms of cognitive processing paths'

Minority languages worth saving as ‘bilingual brains are healthier in terms of cognitive processing paths'

There are a few languages that are spoken most often today but they are just the tip of the linguistic iceberg, merely the more popular tongues from across the Globe. Ninety six percent of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4 percent of its population. Seldom heard though and hidden in jungles, on mountain sides, and in remote villages, is a treasure trove of languages that are slowly dying out and may, one day, vanish completely. Should we make the effort to save those endangered languages or are they so obscure that we would be better off without them? Experts in linguistics from all corners of the world explained to the Voice of Russia the consequences of allowing them to be lost forever.

According to sorosoro.org, 500 languages are actively spoken by fewer than 100 people. At the heart of the problem of disappearing languages is a lack of practice and the motivation to use them, but there is also another player involved in the process of language erosion. Years ago, and even today, people on every continent began switching to their local majority language, but why did they abandon their native tongue for another with words and phrases alien to their ears?

At least one linguist has the answer; "People believed that in order to get ahead in life, you had to speak the majority language," explained Simon Ager, Founder of omniglot.com, to the Voice of Russia. He continued with an example from the United Kingdom and the ancient Celtic language of Wales, "...in this case, it was English, and people in Wales believed it was wrong, they came to believe that children who could only speak Welsh would have difficulty finding jobs. If they wanted to go work in England or other places, they’d have to learn English. So parents at home started speaking English as well”.

External pressure to switch from a minority language to the majority lingua franca is not the only problem; there’s also the money factor. Governments and other organisations often have a hard time handing out funds to support dying languages. Donors may not see any immediate results or rapid progress from giving cash over to help resurrect a language. Nevertheless those that do choose to contribute, could perhaps change many lives for the better.

“There’s a human rights issue here, there’s a biological issue, where it affects your health. Studies show quite clearly now that bilingual brains are healthier on various objective criteria in terms of cognitive processing paths as well as the average age for the onset of dementia,” said Dr. Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. The Duke Talent Identification Program, a gifted education program from Duke University, even states that children who learn a second language can demonstrate raised levels of critical thinking skills, a flexible mind when young and enhanced creativity. They have also been seen to perform better in standardised tests than children who have not learned a second language.

A bigger issue is at stake here, there's more than just losing words and phrases at stake, but the very identity of entire cultures could be in jeopardy. “I feel that languages are like pieces of art and that just as people like looking at beautiful things, people also like hearing different languages,” said Dr. Joshua Nash, Research Associate from the University of Adelaide, he continued, “If you lose your land you can get it back, but if you lose your language you can’t”.

Nearly extinct languages do offer a unique lens through which to view the world. Take for instance the Yukaghir language of Eastern Siberia, spoken by 150 people at most. The way they refer to a unit of time from a traditional standpoint would be to call an hour “the kettle boiled”. A little bit of a longer, around 90 minutes, becomes “the frozen kettle boiled”, according to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Time is not the only factor which plays in a different way on the minds of native speakers of many dying languages. Their words are pronounced differently and take on an exotic tone with intonations and sounds that we might not normally recognise. To illustrate, in Tuvan, a Turkic language spoken in south-central Siberia as well as the Republic of Tuva, there are two words for rain: "chass" and "chashkinn" (English spelling approximated) the latter representing the diminutive form. Whatever the weather it's always good to know the everyday basics, "ekii" means hello bajyrlyg is how you should say goodbye, if you find yourself in those parts.

Yukaghir and Tuvan are just 2 examples of the hundreds of languages that are trying to keep their heads above water and their gramma in motion. There are many languages that may disappear in a decades’ time, but they can be preserved and perhaps even revived, though that may not be quite such a straightforward task. Constant attention needs to be paid to any language which is at risk of being lost, and an ever growing measure of support will be needed for it to maintain any momentum in a world where more than 90 percent of all internet pages are written in just a dozen or so of the world's many diverse languages.

“There are several ways you can do that but it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s very highly recommendable to parents, who speak minor languages to try to continue using their ethnic tongues with their children. It’s easy for us, who speak major languages, to recommend this, but it’s difficult for people belonging to minorities to implement this kind of practice because it's difficult, it’s a challenge. You have to apply a lot of conscious effort with your own children but it does happen in some parts of the world,” explained Andrej Kibrik, Professor of Linguistics at Moscow State University.

Another effective way to save a language is to have both government bodies and private institutions chip in with hard cash to keep a language alive. Besides that, with the wide variety of technologies on hand today, establishing an electronic record is much easier now than it would have been before the internet age. Electronic books, virtual recordings and websites are all facilities available to groups with an interest in preserving a language. They can gather online to use and record a tongue that might have been lost, keeping it alive and well.

The key to postponing the death of a language is solid support from the community, along with motivation and practice. Letting a language die out is tantamount to allowing a whole culture to disappear. Each dying language though is an important piece of a much bigger puzzle, understanding the world we live in and perhaps even the essential human soul which our native language helps to shape in each and every one of us.

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